Articles Posted in Criminal Law

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In 1998, Tibbetts was convicted of murder, aggravated murder, and aggravated robbery and was sentenced to death. Tibbetts filed his first habeas petition in 2003, challenging “the administration of the death penalty by lethal injection.” A Magistrate determined found the claim meritless. Tibbetts did not object to this ruling, abandoning that claim. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of the petition. Tibbetts filed his second habeas petition in 2014, listing 10 grounds for relief, all relating to execution by lethal injection under Ohio law. The district court determined that this was a second-or-successive petition, over which it lacked jurisdiction, and transferred it to the Sixth Circuit, which dismissed. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act limits the authority of federal courts to grant relief to individuals who previously filed a habeas petition; petitioners challenging state court judgments must seek authorization in a federal appeals court before filing a “second or successive” petition in district court, 28 U.S.C. 2244(b). A second-or-successive petition stating claims that were presented in a prior petition “shall be dismissed.” Tibbetts argued that he could not raise his lethal-injection challenge until the state adopted the revised execution protocol. Tibbetts raised such a general claim in his first petition, none of the newly arising circumstances identified in his second petition are necessary to a general claim that his sentence to death by lethal injection is unconstitutional. View "In re: Tibbetts" on Justia Law

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Tanner, convicted of murder in 2000, unsuccessfully sought habeas relief, arguing that the Michigan Supreme Court unreasonably applied Supreme Court precedent when it upheld the denial of funding for a defense serology or DNA expert, and when it held that there was sufficient evidence to convict Tanner. The Sixth Circuit granted relief. Tanner was convicted based on insufficient evidence. The inculpatory evidence establishes, at best, “reasonable speculation” that Tanner was in the crime scene’s parking lot around the time of the murder and that she was last in possession of the murder weapon approximately a month before the murder. The court noted contradictory testimony; the lack of evidence that Tanner entered the building or that the knife was in her possession near the time of the murder. The blood found at the scene matched Tanner’s blood type and PMG subtype. Millions of people share Tanner’s blood type and PGM subtype and there is no way of knowing whether the blood belonged to the perpetrator or to one of the people who gathered after the murder. An unidentified woman’s blood was on the victim’s shirt. The victim was killed during a struggle and the blood did not come from Tanner or from any of her hypothesized accomplices. View "Tanner v. Yukins" on Justia Law

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In 1986, Thompson, having served 12 years of a life sentence for an unrelated murder for hire, killed his prison-farm supervisor, stole his possessions, and fled. Thompson was captured and convicted of murder, robbery, and escape. Thompson was granted a retrial on direct appeal, then pleaded guilty to all three counts to avoid jury sentencing. A state court held that Commonwealth was entitled to jury sentencing despite the plea agreement. The jury returned a death-penalty verdict. In state post-conviction proceedings, Thompson succeeded on his claim that the trial court had failed to hold a mandatory competency hearing but was unsuccessful on his other claims for relief. After the trial court held the required competency hearing and found that Thompson had been competent to plead guilty, the Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed Thompson’s convictions and sentences. The Sixth Circuit affirmed denial of Thompson’s federal habeas corpus petition raising claims that the jury improperly considered extraneous evidence when it discussed a news account about another violent criminal who had committed a murder after earning parole at age 70; that jury instructions violated the Supreme Court’s 1988 holding, Mills v. Maryland, because they stated that the “verdict” had to be returned unanimously but did not expressly state that unanimity was not required for a juror to find a mitigating factor; and the Kentucky Supreme Court did not adequately conduct a comparative-proportionality review in assessing whether Thompson’s death sentence was excessive or disproportionate. View "Thompson v. Parker" on Justia Law

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In 2004, when the Sentencing Guidelines were deemed mandatory, Raybon pleaded guilty to distributing more than 50 grams of cocaine base, 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1), agreeing that he qualified as a career offender under U.S.S.G. 4B1.1, based on a prior drug trafficking conviction and a conviction for assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder. The career offender designation increased his guidelines range to 262-327 months’ imprisonment (from 140-175 months). The Sixth Circuit affirmed a sentence 295 months’ imprisonment. Ten years later, under a different regime of “effectively advisory” Guidelines, Raybon moved to vacate his sentence under 28 U.S.C. 2255 based on the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Johnson, which invalidated the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. 924(e)(2)(B)(ii), as unconstitutionally void for vagueness. Raybon argued that his predicate conviction for assault with intent to do great bodily harm no longer qualified as a crime of violence under an identically-worded residual clause in the career offender guideline. The district court denied the motion as untimely. The Sixth Circuit affirmed; whether the 2015 Johnson decision applies to identical language in the mandatory guidelines is an open question. Raybon’s appeal was not based on a right newly established by the Supreme Court in 2015. View "Raybon v. United States" on Justia Law

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Brown arrived to pick up Hamilton for what he thought was a date. Hamilton’s boyfriend, Stewart, was waiting for him. A struggle ensued. Shots were fired. The men grappled down an apartment stairwell building and out the door. At the end of a trail of blood, Brown lay dead with several gunshot wounds in his chest. Stewart was gone. Michigan charged Stewart and Hamilton with felony murder, felon in possession of a firearm, armed robbery, and conspiracy to commit armed robbery. The evidence at a joint trial showed that Stewart and Hamilton planned to rob Brown. The jury found Stewart guilty. The court sentenced him to life for the first-degree felony murder conviction, two years for the felony-firearm conviction, and 25-50 years for the armed robbery and conspiracy convictions. The jury also found Hamilton guilty. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed Stewart’s conviction, finding some claims forfeited, others without error, and still others harmless. The federal district court granted habeas relief. The Sixth Circuit reversed. The state court properly found that any of Hamilton’s statements that were admitted in violation of the Confrontation Clause were cumulative of properly admitted evidence and not outcome-determinative. Given the judge’s curative instructions, prosecutorial statements about credibility did not deprive Steward of due process. View "Stewart v. Trierweiler" on Justia Law

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In 1986, Black shot his girlfriend Angela’s ex-husband. Black pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years at a Davidson County, Tennessee, workhouse. In 1988, while on a weekend furlough, Black entered Angela’s home, shot Angela as she slept, and then shot Angela’s nine-year-old and six-year-old children, killing all three. Black returned to the workhouse before officers discovered the bodies. Black’s trial and post-conviction proceedings have spanned nearly 30 years. In 2000, Black filed an unsuccessful federal habeas petition, claiming that his mental retardation precluded the imposition of the death penalty. After two remands, the Sixth Circuit affirmed. While the Supreme Court and the Tennessee courts have recently recognized limitations imposed by the Eighth Amendment on the power of states to execute mentally retarded persons, those developments do not give Black a reprieve from his death sentence. The court rejected Black’s claims that the district court erred in perceiving the remand to be a limited remand; erred in denying Black an evidentiary hearing; erred in failing to apply a summary-judgment standard in ruling on Black’s Atkins claim; and erred in its merits determination regarding relief under the Supreme Court’s "Atkins" standard. Black did not meet his burden to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he has significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning that manifested before Black turned 18. View "Black v. Carpenter" on Justia Law

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Attorney King approached Terry, a supposed drug dealer, at a strip club. King offered to help Terry launder drug money. Terry, actually a confidential informant, told the police, who arranged several meetings that Terry secretly recorded. Terry told King that he had drugs shipped in from Mexico but that he didn’t sell the product at the “street level.” None Terry's statements were true. King proposed to imitate what he had seen on Breaking Bad: One option was to use a “cash heavy” entertainment business. He also suggested funneling money through his IOLTA trust account used by attorneys to hold client money: King would provide fictitious legal services, deduct payments from the account, and return the remaining money to Terry. They agreed to the IOLTA account approach. Terry gave King $20,000. King promised to deposit it in his IOLTA account. King gave Terry a check for $2,000 in February and another for the same amount in March. King was convicted of two counts of money laundering and one count of attempted money laundering and was sentenced to 44 months in prison. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting arguments that the introduction of recorded conversations between him and the informant violated his Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses and that the court improperly allowed the prosecution to ask him about his prior arrest for cocaine possession. View "United States v. King" on Justia Law

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Edwards was killed in 1991. In 1999, Defendant, incarcerated on unrelated charges, contacted Chattanooga Police, stating he had information related to the unsolved murder. Detective Mathis interviewed Defendant. Defendant was not under arrest or charged with Edwards’ murder at the time of his recorded confession. Mathis testified he did not promise anything in return for the confession; that Defendant waived his right to remain silent and to an attorney; that he talked with Defendant for some time before reading him his Miranda rights because Defendant stated that he had heard about the murder, not that he was involved; and that he told Defendant that he would tell the district attorney’s office that Defendant had come forward and cooperated. Defendant testified that he asked to speak with his attorney but that Mathis stated he did not need an attorney and that Mathis promised him that Defendant would not be charged with the murder and promised to speak with Defendant’s parole officer and the district attorney about other cases in return for cooperation. A jury convicted him of first-degree felony murder and aggravated robbery. The convictions were affirmed on direct appeal; state courts denied post-conviction relief. The district court denied petitions for federal habeas relief. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The state court’s ruling was objectively reasonable in finding that Defendant was not in custody for Miranda purposes. An individual who is not in Miranda custody has no constitutional right to counsel. View "Schreane v. Ebbert" on Justia Law

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Perry conditionally pled guilty to conspiring to possess narcotics with intent to distribute. On appeal, Perry argued that the activities indicating drug sales that were observed over the seven weeks before the issuance of the search warrant were stale evidence because the activities were not individually dated. The Sixth Circuit affirmed denial of his motion to suppress. Even without specific dates, the amount of suspicious activity observed within the seven weeks in connection with Perry’s apartment was enough to support probable cause. The court noted several complaints from concerned residents about drug sales being conducted in the apartment complex and in a black Chevrolet Impala and naming Perry and his girlfriend as the sellers; Perry had several prior drug charges; an officer observed Perry exchange money and packages, which appeared to contain marijuana, at a fence; the officer observed multiple additional transactions involving Perry and his girlfriend that appeared to be drug transactions. The officer stated that his observations occurred between October 15 and December 3—two to 51 days before the probable-cause determination; his observations of heavy car and foot traffic, repeated transactions, and one particular transaction, all suggested that apartment four was home to a sizeable ongoing drug business. View "United States v. Perry" on Justia Law

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Ataya pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit health care fraud and wire fraud. In his plea agreement, he relinquished any right to appeal his conviction or sentence “on any grounds.” Atatya nonetheless appealed. The Sixth Circuit directed the parties to brief the question of whether Ataya entered into the plea agreement as a whole knowingly and voluntarily. Ataya understood and accepted the appellate waiver’s consequences, but if he misunderstood the conviction’s key consequences, that undermines the knowingness of the appellate waiver. The district court did not inform Ataya, as Rule 11 requires, that the plea agreement required him to pay restitution and a special assessment and to forfeit the proceeds of his fraud; neither the plea agreement nor the district court mentioned that Ataya, who became a naturalized citizen after the alleged frauds, might face denaturalization as a result of his conviction. Invalidation of the agreement will require him to demonstrate “a reasonable probability that, but for the error, he would not have entered the plea.” View "United States v. Ataya" on Justia Law